Lenin, Britain, and Elections

Text of a speech to the Communist Party trade union and political cadre school Wortley Hall, 6 February 2010

In addressing questions of the Communist Party in Britain and its relation to the Labour Party and elections, Lenin applied Marxist principles which provide a valuable starting-point for our analysis today. And he applied them to the concrete conditions in Britain and internationally at the time, some of which have disappeared, some changed a little, some transformed and others new.

I would identify three cardinal principles as follows:


First, that Social Democracy will never mobilise and lead the working class to take state power as a class in order to abolish capitalism and construct socialism.

This is true because, Lenin argued, Social Democracy sought only to represent the workers within the confines of capitalism. Indeed, far from wishing to overthrow capitalism, the labour aristocracy—which promoted and staffed Social Democracy—identified its own interests with those of capitalism, with the imperialism which made possible the bribery, flattery and incorporation of the top layer of the working class.

It is worth noting here that Lenin believed this to be as much the case in Britain as in any other country, if not more so given the greater power, resources and sophistication of British imperialism. This assessment was not in any way modified by the fact that, in his time, the Labour Party had a unique structure among the world’s social-democratic parties, whereby two-thirds of all organised workers were in trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party, comprising 99 per cent of that party’s membership of 4.4 million1920. As Lenin explained to the Second Congress of the Communist International in August that year:

Of course, most of the Labour Party’s members are workingmen. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct, point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organisation of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the workers …

This is why Lenin rejected characterisations of the Labour Party as being the ‘political organisation of the trade union movement’, because it concealed an essential distinction between the social composition of its membership and the political and ideological character of the party’s policies, leadership and role in supporting capitalism and imperialism.

Has the first of Lenin’s principles stood the test of time?

In the nine decades since Lenin’s death, Social Democracy has not—neither in Britain nor anywhere else—led the working class to state power to replace capitalism with socialism. Labour, ‘Socialist’ and Social-Democratic parties have taken office from Britain to Australia and New Zealand, from Chile to Japan, in every country in Scandinavia and almost everywhere else in western Europe, from Jamaica to Malta and Israel.

With the heroic exception of Allende’s Popular Unity government, Social Democracy has never seriously threatened the existence of capitalism in those countries. In most cases, it has tried to manage it more humanely, or it has rescued capitalism or—as in eastern Europe since the early 1990s—it has helped to restore it. In major imperialist countries such as Britain, Germany, France and Spain, the social-democratic parties in office have largely defended the international interests of their own ruling class, sometimes brutally.

Lenin’s principled opposition to Social Democracy has been vindicated by the 20th century.

But is this the whole story?

Mass social-democratic parties are not immune from the conflicts and contradictions of the society in which they exist. Electoral politics and working class support and involvement help to reproduce the political class struggle within those parties. Of course, pro-working class and socialist ideas and demands can usually be contained, frustrated, undermined or marginalised when it counts, with the assistance of party constitutions, autocratic leadership, anti-democratic manoeuvring, the mass media, the electoral system, capitalist sabotage and the like.

But we have also seen social-democratic parties — invariably under electoral, popular or trade union pressure — shift to the left, their governments enacting reforms which challenge capitalist prerogatives, are far-reaching and which undoubtedly extend the immediate interests of the working class.

This is true, for example, of the Labour governments elected in 1945, 1974 and 1997. Yet  in almost every case, the initial phase of advance has been halted and turned back, leading to division and eventually electoral defeat. The working class and popular movement has failed to provide the unity, direction and momentum necessary to overcome opposition from outside Social Democracy as well as from within.

But the predominance in practice of the struggle for reforms in Britain has both strengthened right-wing opportunism in the Labour Party and trade union movement, divorcing reforms from questions of working class state power and socialism, and provoked an ultra-leftist response which underestimates the need to fight for reforms altogether.

Yet formulating them, battling for them, implementing them and defending them are vital aspects of engaging, politicising and mobilising the working class and progressive movements. Such activities have won more workers to struggle and to socialism than any amount of abstract or purely revolutionary propaganda.

Has the Communist movement spent sufficient time and effort working out the relations between the struggle for reforms and the fight for state power, the methods and processes of transition from one stage to the other?

Which brings me to the second of Lenin’s principles.

The working class needs a strong Communist Party to play a leading role in uniting, mobilising and guiding the working class, the labour movement and the popular anti-monopoly alliance.

In the first instance, in a modern capitalist society, such a party can only be built by recruiting workers and young prospective workers to it, usually from within the most militant and/or politically conscious sections of the working class. This does not mean, of course, that recruits from other social classes are not welcome.

Lenin’s view was that militants and revolutionaries should join the Communist Party, even when they had significant differences with its policies. He also argued that Communists should consciously seek to win militant workers and revolutionaries to the party, despite those differences. Obviously, once inside, all party members would be bound equally by the requirements of democratic centralism.

In this respect, it should be noted that Lenin did not regard the ‘left-wing’ communists of his time, either in Britain or anywhere else, as the enemy, let alone as the main enemy. Their ideas may be mistaken, and even dangerous when ultra-leftists are in positions of influence in the working class or revolutionary movement. Although even here, we might remember that for all his sharp opposition to Trotsky’s potentially disastrous policies in relation to the trade unions and to peace with Germany, Lenin combated those policies politically and did not call for Trotsky’s expulsion from the Russian Communist Party.

Ultra-leftist errors and strategies have to be fought and corrected. Ultra-leftists who have no base in the working class or progressive movements, or whose views or actions are so ultra-leftist as to assist the ruling class, can be disregarded at no cost to the Communist Party or left unity.

But the main enemy for Lenin continued to be imperialism, the capitalist class and—within the working class movement—the right wing, the treacherous leaders, the ‘agents of the bourgeoisie’.

Which brings me to Lenin’s third and—as with the previous two—inter-related principle in these matters.

A central strategic objective of the Party is to win a large section of the working class to revolutionary politics, including to the leading role of the Communist Party itself.

Since the early 1920s, we have learnt that this is a longer and more complex process than was once imagined. We have had to adapt our revolutionary ambitions and expectations to the unexpected adaptability and longevity of capitalism and Social Democracy. We have built alliances within the Labour Party and in the trade union and progressive movements in order to exercise influnce and—in some campaigns—leadership.

Lenin came down in favour of the Communist Party securing affiliation to the Labour Party, precisely because of the latter’s working class composition—although it has to be said that he did not regard it as a severe blow when the applications were rebuffed in 1920, 1921 and 1922.

Because of that organic link between the Labour Party and the trade unions, Labour—more than most social-democratic parties—has been an arena of class struggle, with socialist and even Marxist ideas having a basis for contesting those of Social Democracy, capitalism and imperialism.

But we are one decade into the 21st century. In recent years, the Labour Party has confirmed, in spades, that it is ‘led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie’. Indeed, our party went so far at its 48th congress in 2004 as to characterise New Labour as a ‘pro-imperialist, pro-monopoly and anti-working class trend’ which had hijacked the Labour Party and abandoned Social Democracy, because—unlike previous Labour Party leaderships—Blair and Brown & Co. did not in any way regard or conduct themselves as the parliamentary representatives of the working class, trying to improve its lot within monopoly capitalism through wealth redistribution, better public services and a mixed economy; expanding democratic liberties; trying to moderate imperialism’s tendency to war.

Does this mean winning trade unionists to revolutionary politics is no longer served by building and strengthening the Communist Party’s links to the Labour left in and the Labour-affiliated unions, or that Communist Party affiliation would serve no useful purpose? Of course not.

Despite the decline in trade union affiliation since 1979, and the collapse in individual membership since 1997, in terms of its class composition the Labour Party has not changed fundamentally. Affiliated trade union political levy-payers comprise 94 per cent of Labour’s ‘membership’ (broadly defined), more or less the same as in the 1980s and 1990s, and higher than the 80-90 per cent it has been at every other time since 1928.

Nevertheless, we should take account of some very significant changes that have occurred in the trade union movement and in its relationship with the Labour Party.

Firstly, the proportion of workers organised in trade unions has fallen from its peak of 55 per cent of all employees in 1979 to around 28 per cent today. Secondly, this decline in trade union density has been steeper in the private sector (down to 17 per cent) than in the public sector (down to 59 per cent) and it is the public sector that the biggest non-affiliated unions are to be found, notably in education and the civil service. Unions such as the PCS, NUT, EIS and UCU are also responsible for a bigger share of industrial action in the modern era than has been the case historically. Within the traditionally more industrial, affiliated and/or militant sections of the trade union movement, we have to note the near-disappearance of the once-mighty NUM, the disaffiliation of the RMT and the FBU, and the fact that the proportion of members paying the political levy in the biggest two unions is now down to 65 per cent in both UNITE and UNISON.

The significance of these figures is that there are substantial sections of the working class which are not organised into the trade union movement, and there are substantial sections of the trade union movement which are not affiliated to the Labour Party.

Therefore our party should not underestimate the importance of political work among unorganised or non-affiliated sections of the working class. The domiciled Communist Parties organising in Britain can play a valuable role in helping our party and the trade union movement reach unorganised and migrant workers.

So, what role should Communist electoral work and policy play in pursuit of the Leninist principles identified above, ie., exposing Social Democracy, building the Communist Party, uniting and mobilising the working class and winning it to revolutionary politics?

Lenin talked of the need for Communists to support the Labour Party leadership in parliamentary elections ‘in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man’. He did not do so because he thought of the Labour Party as the mass party of the working class, or as the political representatives of the trade union movement. Rather, it was necessary in order to help the Labour Party leadership expose themselves as imperialists and traitors in the eyes of their deluded working class supporters. Well, they have done this on each occasion after taking office, at least so far as many militant and politically conscious workers are concerned. But it would appear, unfortunately, that the necessary lessons have to be learnt anew in every generation, until a revolutionary breakthrough in political consciousness is made.

Moreover, there may be other reasons why a Labour victory is preferable to a Tory victory, which requires enough people voting Labour in enough constituencies to secure a parliamentary majority.

At the same time, Lenin was clear that elections should be used to expose Social Democracy, not to play down or overlook its treachery. And they provide favourable conditions in which to promote the Communist Party and its revolutionary perspectives, to the extent that—as he urged William Paul in 1920—if no arrangement could be made with Labour, ‘the Communist Party ought to contest as many seats as possible’.

If Communist electoral policy is also to reinforce its extra-parliamentary trade union and campaigning work to unite and mobilise the working class and win people to revolutionary politics, it cannot be confined to an alignment with the Labour Party left and the affiliated trade unions. This is even more the case when so much extra-parliamentary struggle engages forces beyond those sections. And where electoral campaigns can reflect class and popular struggle on the ground against pro-imperialist, pro-monopoly, anti-working class policies and candidates, the place of the Communist Party is surely in the former camp not the latter.

But whether Communists are supporting Labour, Communist or other left candidates, we should conduct that work in a Leninist way. That means going beyond the conventions of bourgeois politics, putting forward advanced policies in their revolutionary perspective, using bold and imaginative methods—developing electoral politics of a new, Communist type.

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Robert Griffiths is general secretary of the Communist Party and a contributor to 21stcenturymanifesto

http://21stcenturymanifesto.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/lenin-britain-and-elections/

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